Reading Wimsey, 1987

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery dramatized by the BBCWe recently watched the BBC’s production of Gaudy Night that aired in the late 1980’s on PBS. At that time we were unable to watch the series of Lord Peter television movies, but we were already avid readers of Dorothy Sayers’ works, including her mysteries. I don’t know why it took us so long to watch this movie, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.

From time to time we’re asked which Lord Peter mysteries to read first. My personal favorites are:

  1. “Talboys,” a short story in the collection entitled Lord Peter. It takes place in 1942, long after Lord Peter and Harriet were married, when they are raising three sons.
  2. The Nine Tailors. I love the interweaving in this book of unhurried depictions of rural English life and the art of church bell change ringing. Read it at Christmas-time if you can.
  3. Busman’s Honeymoon. In Gaudy Night, Harriet finally accepts Peter’s proposal. In Busman’s Honeymoon, they begin married life together by solving a murder.
  4. Documents in the Case. Lord Peter is not a figure in this mystery (though other familiar characters appear). His absence is all the more reason I marvel at Sayer’s craftsmanship with this unusual story. If this title is not a universal favorite, perhaps it’s because it’s not a page-turner. Yet it’s fascinating how she developed the various characters through nothing more than the case files on Inspector Parker’s desk. Also, it may appeal most to readers (like me) who appreciate a tantalizing glimpse of the state of forensic biochemistry around 1930.

These are my top four. No two Sayers readers would likely agree on such a list (except, I think, The Nine Tailors would appear near the top of most people’s favorites). But if the entire series is read in chronological order, one may appreciate how Sayers achieves a coherent account that is quite gratifying of Lord Peter’s character development as a whimsical and slightly detached English aristocrat during the 1930s and 1940s. Why not set out to read them all in order some year?

Tucked away inside one of our Lord Peter volumes is the following New Years letter to some friends, written in January of 1987 as we were awaiting the birth of our first child. Rachel was born in April of that year. While raising three daughters, we have never regretted championing “Talboys” as our philosophy of child-rearing. (However, having had no sons who were “‘fernal nuisances on a hot day,” it is wise to retain a wholesale skepticism about our child-rearing abilities.)

The letter lists the Lord Peter stories in chronological order, so download it as a reading guide, if you like.

Sayers began another Lord Peter novel in 1938 but never finished it. Jill Paton Walsh completed it and published it in 1998 as Thrones, Dominations. To include this in the chronological list, put it right after Busman’s Honeymoon.

Not listed is a series of letters Sayers published in the Spectator in 1939 and 1940, ostensibly between Lord Peter, Harriet and other characters from the mysteries, which described their roles in England and abroad at the start of the war. Some of these letters are incorporated in A Presumption of Death, a Lord Peter mystery written by Walsh and published in 2003. To read the Wimsey stories in chronological order, pick up this one after Thrones, Dominations, and just before “Talboys.”

Letter to friends about Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, 1987

What do you like most about reading Lord Peter mysteries? Which of Sayers’ stories are your favorites?


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